Interpreting Christian history: a review

[My review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History: the challenge of the churches’ past, first published in Reviews in History in 2005. Still in print, I would still recommend the book for anyone interested in what history might mean for the churches.]

Euan Cameron, former Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Newcastle, now Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has written a fascinating and, in many ways, remarkable study. It contains much that may be of interest to professional religious historians, to historians of ideas, to students and teachers of theology, and to the general reader. In addition, its approach neatly demonstrates the dilemmas facing historians of Christianity who are themselves religiously committed, and the contrasting audiences for writing on Christian history.

Cameron’s central enterprise, as outlined in the Preface and developed in the Introduction, is one that is of pivotal importance to many historians of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular, yet entirely beside the point to others. The usefulness of studying Christian history for many, if not most, Christians lies in the degree to which it aids the process of identifying which elements of the inheritance of one or other of the denominations constitute part of the ‘core’ of the faith, and which may safely be reformed, re-ordered, or discarded. This set of priorities may well be familiar to church historians working in some denominational theological colleges, and also conceivably (although less likely) in university departments of theology or divinity.

Cameron rightly identifies the damage done by an uncritical use of the past to settle issues in the contemporary church, and the problematic nature of the notion of a timeless, ‘pure’ core content that can be traced developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the millennia of the Church’s history. As the archbishop of Canterbury recently put it, ‘When people set out to prove that nothing has changed, you can normally be sure that something quite serious has’ (1). In many ways, this view of the history of doctrine as the progression and ‘emergence’ of key ideas, detached and floating free of context and free from the minds required to think them, sounds very much like the style of writing of the history of political ideas that Quentin Skinner so effectively destroyed over thirty-five years ago.

The second, and diametrically opposed, approach is that prevailing in most secular history departments. This sets aside entirely all consideration of the ‘truth’ or otherwise of religious statements and practices, and seeks to understand those statements and practices purely in terms of their functions in the society in which they are embedded and from which they grow. To pose questions of ‘truth’ attracts the taint of the most partisan historical writing of the past, most often, but not exclusively, concerning the Reformations.

Having delineated this seemingly irreconcilable opposition, Cameron seeks to identify a Third Way, for which this volume is both a manifesto and a series of exploratory essays. Nailing his own colours firmly to the mast, he correctly identifies the fact that for most Christians the adoption of a thorough-going relativism — the abandonment of any core in historic Christianity — would surely be difficult to accept. Thus to capitulate would truly be to build one’s house on sand. For Cameron, there does exist an ‘essential Christianity’, reflecting the immutable nature of God. However, all visible Christianities are always and everywhere a composite of this eternal core, and the inevitable situation of the Church and its members in particular places, cultures, and languages. Cameron then looks to assert that, whilst it would be impossible ever to sort out definitively the core from the time-bound and conditioned, it is nevertheless possible for historians, by a process of ‘triangulation’ of different periods and churches, to infer useful things from the churches’ past.

After a brief overview of Christian history in chapter 1, designed mainly for the non-specialist reader, in chapter 2 (‘Constantly shifting emphases in Christian history’), Cameron looks to draw out some examples of periods in the churches’ history in which a particular and repeating pattern of development can be detected. For Cameron, Christians have often collectively seized upon a particular practice or doctrine as particularly expressive of a need or useful as a tool. These particular elements of the faith, often blameless and indeed admirable as means of Christian perfection, have often become ends in themselves. Such practices have often then been elaborated upon and developed in such a way as to conflict with, and distract from, other, arguably more important, principles, thus leading to an unbalanced and distorted whole. These shifts of the centre towards one extreme or another are often accompanied by a lesser, but nonetheless clear, counter-movement, such as the emergence of Lollardy in the context of late-medieval sacramentalism. Sometimes, but not always, these imbalances have led to the outgrowing structures collapsing under their own weight, and a re-balancing of the church occurring — a prime example being that of the Reformations.

Without claiming that the ‘core’ elements thus obscured and then recovered are necessarily easy to discern, Cameron convincingly lays out examples of such a pattern in the medieval church, taking in examinations of asceticism and martyrdom in the medieval period, and Protestant emphases on catechesis and the integrity of the visible church community since the Reformation. Cameron is not concerned to establish any grand narrative of why this pattern should be, although he provides much material for the theological pursuit of such a question as he proceeds. His aim, and one which is achieved, is to demonstrate the pertinence of such a pattern, and the use of a wide enough historical lens to discern it, for the enterprise of writing Christian history.

Chapter 3 examines the status and development of church history as a distinct and self-conscious activity from Eusebius to the late-twentieth century. Whilst making no claims of exhaustiveness, this section is an admirably concise and, on the whole, convincing narrative of changing priorities, and fills a gap in the literature. In order to show that his approach is not purely a late-twentieth century exercise in relativism, Cameron demonstrates that historians of the churches have for five centuries been dealing with just such an awareness of the flawed and time-bound nature of the historic church. The writing of church history is to a great degree predicated upon the ecclesiological point from which one begins.

Particularly interesting is Cameron’s account of the development of the relationship of sixteenth century theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, with the Catholic past. The crucial shift in Reformation church history was the jettisoning of any emphasis on the integrity of the hierarchy as a mark of the True Church, and the relocation of that essence in the presence of a saving remnant, however small. Christian thinkers were for the first time faced with the task of identifying how and why the institutional church could have become so corrupt as to cease to be a True Church. This necessitated a new relationship with the historic church. Cameron also draws out the incongruous co-existence of this increasingly critical approach to sources with the continued attribution of influence to divine or Satanic agency, and the reading of church history through the prism of the Apocalypse. As his narrative proceeds into the modern period, Cameron rightly identifies the crucial nineteenth-century withdrawal of professional historians from explicit theological reflection on the implications of their work; a task that was picked up almost at the same point by theologians, and latterly by sociologists of religion.

In chapter 4, the work reaches its theological core, and as such is the point at which many, if not most, historians of religion may choose to stop reading. To do so, however, would be a shame. Cameron samples some of the attempts of historically-informed theologians to solve the central epistemological problem outlined in the Introduction: is it possible to develop an historico-theological method with which to begin to discern the core elements of Christian doctrine and practice from the history of the flawed, human, error-prone institutions that are the churches? Whether or not the reader accepts the validity of, or sees any point to, such an undertaking, there is much suggestive material for historians of ideas along the way. Fascinating conjunctures are presented between Hegelian thought and the currents within German liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century. The reaction of Karl Barth, in the context of the turmoil of world war, against the profound optimism concerning human nature of many of his predecessors also suggests many fruitful avenues of new research.

For this reviewer, with interests in British history, the absence of British, and in particular Anglican, theologians from this endeavour is striking, and indicates much about the Church of England’s own and perhaps rather particular view of its own past. What is perhaps of the greatest general interest in this section is the picture it gives of a sister discipline to history grappling with many of the same issues relating to language and epistemology, globalization and social change that have exploded to the surface in recent years.

In summary, Cameron has produced a work that, whilst unlikely to surprise period specialists in matters of detail, may profitably be read as an examination of a crucially important part of church history, and as a peculiarly fascinating meditation on Christian history, theology and the relationship between them.

[See also Cameron’s response to the review.]

Lecture: Understanding religious networks in the archived web

Back in April I was in Jerusalem to give a paper at a two-day conference on web archiving at the National Library of Israel. The majority of the lectures are now available on YouTube, and mine is below.

It draws on material from three projects, some published, some not. The first was my forthcoming piece on religion in Web history in the Sage Handbook of Web History; the second, another forthcoming piece on cross-border religion in the Irish web (due later this year), and thirdly, this (so far unpublished) paper on British creationism.

(It starts about 28 minutes in).

British creationism in the web archive

Some time ago (2014) I wrote a short post on some work I was doing on the link patterns in the archived UK web surrounding the web estates of British creationist organisations. That post has since attracted a certain amount of attention, including a citation or two. I have not yet pursued formal publication of that work, but I did give a short paper at a conference in 2015 which provides fuller documentation of the case. With all the necessary caveats about its status as a preprint, without having been through formal peer review, I make it available here: Reading British creationism in the web archive (ReSAW conference, June 2015, Aarhus, Denmark)

Early Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

I now have a new article published by the journal Internet Histories, which is available online. Here’s a summary.

Technology, ethics and religious language: early Anglophone Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

The article falls broadly into two halves, both concentrated not so much on the history of the Internet and Web as technologies as on the kinds of terms Anglophone writers used in order to understand them. The time frame is what I’ve called the ‘long Nineties’, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2001.

Between 1992 and 1996, as Thomas Streeter has shown, ‘the Internet ceased to be imagined as merely a cluster of imperfectly connected technologies that interested computer scientists and became instead an integral system with an agency of its own to promote change: change that could not be resisted, only shaped’. This was followed by ‘a remarkable effusion of writing in English between 1996 and 2001 that addressed the spiritual and ethical implications of the coming technological revolution. At the same time as the dotcom bubble inflated, writers across Europe and North America were seeing visions of future utopia and dystopia fashioned by this seemingly unstoppable technology.’

The first half pays particular attention to language, and the degree to which discourse about the Internet was cast in religious terms. The article looks at the whole range of metaphorical and metaphysical framings of the internet and Web: from purely metaphorical talk of the ‘soul’ of the Internet (meaning an idealised culture of its users), to its use as a metaphor for God (and of God as a metaphor for the Internet). These ideas were related to the notion of the ‘technological sublime’ (David Nye), but some went further to attribute to the Internet something very much like a consciousness and (at the extreme) a manifestation of the divine. There was little in this complex bricolage of concepts and images from several religious traditions to form anything like a coherent theology of the Internet, and the very imprecision of the concepts involved was part of their valency across apparently antithetical fields of discourse. I suggest that contemporary imaginings about the Web were one example where religious sentiment, broadly defined, had transferred its focus to something other than mainstream religion. If the secularisation of language has never been completed (assuming it could ever be), it should be no surprise that moral and ethical debate was often conducted in terms derived from the Christian history of the West.

The second half looks in particular at Christian reactions to the Internet in general, and this pervasive use of religious language in particular, since its very syncretism was a source of acute discomfort to those Christians attempting to understand it. It first puts these reactions in a longer context of Christian criticism of computerisation more generally, dating back to the early 1980s and indeed earlier. Some Christians responded simply to the likely effects of particular manifestations of life online, seeing ethical challenges in relation to economic and social exclusion, and the subtler impact on the health of interpersonal relations; others, though in the minority, elaborated a semi-mystical evolutionary understanding of the Web, inflluenced by Teilhard de Chardin, that had parallels with those more influenced by pagan or Buddhist thought. Others again set aside high-flown imaginings, either positive or negative, and adopted the Web as a pragmatic means of achieving their ends. I concentrate in particular on some of the reactions to shifts in the conceptual vocabulary of the West in relation to personality and the soul, human capability and its limitations, and the relationship between humankind and God. The more overheated rhetoric that surrounded virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the capabilities of the network seemed to threaten the Christian notion of human uniqueness and the right relationship of fallen imperfect humans to their Creator.

Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities: a review

Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities.
Agiatis Benardou, Erik Champion, Costis Dallas and Lorna M. Hughes (eds). Routledge, 2017.

[This review first appeared in the LSE Review of Books.]

The digital turn in humanities research over the last three decades has enabled the asking of new research questions: the availability of fresh tools and techniques, as well as digitised objects to which to apply them, has opened up angles of enquiry on almost any subject. This was already deeply felt in the pioneering humanities computing projects of the 1980s, but the pervasiveness of the internet has prompted thinking at national and international levels, particularly in the 2000s, about how those new kinds of research might best be enabled in a networked, geographically dispersed context.

At the same time, the policy environment for humanities research has been inflected by external forces: the energy directed towards ‘cyber-infrastructure’ for the ‘hard’ sciences; the increasing pressure on the custodians of cultural heritage (publicly funded galleries, libraries, archives and museums (the GLAM sector) in particular) to maximise the use of their holdings. Also, in Europe especially, there has been an emphasis on a common heritage of European civilisation that ought to be studied comparatively as part of a more general projection of the European ideal. As a result, the European Union has funded, and continues to fund, ‘research infrastructures’ for the humanities in varying shapes and sizes, although it is not alone in doing so.

However, as the editors of Cultural Heritage Infrastructures in Digital Humanities point out, there is as yet little reflection available on the impact these research infrastructures have had both on the academy and the wider public (5). This collection of essays is a very valuable contribution to that process of assessment, and deserves to be widely read. It will be of interest not only to humanities scholars, but also to those in the GLAM sector concerned with user engagement and access, as well as policymakers in and around government.

The eleven chapters presented fall into several kinds. Readers most specifically concerned with the broad strategic issues concerning infrastructure provision – i.e. which services these infrastructures should provide, to whom and using which technologies – will be best served by contributions from Seamus Ross; Veerle Vanden Daelen on the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI); Agiatis Benardou and Alastair Dunning on Europeana; Sharon Webb and Aileen O’Carroll on digital tools in Ireland, and; Tobias Blanke, Conny Kristel and Laurent Romary’s chapter, and the editorial introduction. Other contributions focus not so much on these wider issues as on individual disciplines or on particular tools and services. Although edited by scholars from Australia, Canada, Greece and the UK, the focus of the collection is weighted towards Europe; while the collection is none the worse for that, there is still room for reflection on the situation in other contexts.

Some common themes stand out. The collection is shot through with a refreshing awareness of how crucial engagement with the user is in creating a service that meets their needs. This is welcome indeed, since there is no shortage of digital services that serve their users less well than they might, largely because those commissioning, designing and building them did not stop to ask what users required. The well-documented example of Project Bamboo in the United States disappointed the hopes placed on it largely for this reason, and is acknowledged here.

This reviewer was also reminded once again of the sheer particularity of humanities scholarship both in terms of method and the kinds of materials in use, which points up the difficulty of creating infrastructures that suit more than a small number of scholars. A juxtaposition of Gertraud Koch’s essay on anthropology and that of Christina Kamposiori, Claire Warwick and Simon Mahony on art history serves to make the point: different humanities disciplines often make use of very different kinds of digital objects, and where they do use the same materials, quite distinct working assumptions are made about them. Furthermore, disciplines are also marked by varying levels of digital skills amongst their practitioners. Given all this, the challenges in designing services that meet all these needs are formidable. The experience of EHRI – providing a service that allowed scholars to discover materials in many archives relating to the Holocaust – shows the difficulty of creating such a service even for what, on the face of it, is a relatively clearly defined class of resources.

Despite all the stimulating and useful material this collection provides, a question mark remains over whether persistent organisational and technical structures are the best way of fostering research in the digital humanities. The question is met head on by Blanke, Kristel and Romary, who rightly acknowledge the complexity of creating large semi-permanent distributed digital services to connect very diverse individual tools and resources, especially as both the needs of users and the technologies available change rapidly and asymmetrically with each other. Beyond this book, however, the wider debate about how to enable distributed humanities scholarship is still often framed in terms of the shape that such infrastructures should take; their desirability in principle is not often stated as such, but is assumed. Andrew Prescott has rightly taken issue with the whole metaphor of infrastructure as an unhelpful way of imagining what is required. To envisage things in terms of infrastructure implies permanence, rigidity, standardisation. An alternative case might be made for the metaphor of the ecosystem, with which Blanke and colleagues also make play.

One can imagine a scholarly ecosystem in which individual libraries and archives concentrate on understanding their own users and designing services to meet their specific needs, whilst exposing data in a maximally open but passive way for others to access as and when they need to. Some of the funding currently directed at intermediate technical structures might instead be used to develop this local capacity. At the same time, funders might also invest in three other things: observing and reporting on the directions in which research in each community is heading (in the manner of the now defunct AHRC Digital Methods Network and other projects, as noted on pages 4-5); developing the individual technical skills of researchers in exploiting those resources and in making their own tools; and supporting the development of many community-specific tools and projects in response to demand, on the condition that those same tools are openly available for reuse and adaptation as needs change. To be sure, several of the existing infrastructures do some or all of these things, but it may be that that is all they should do.

This is not necessarily to advocate such a way of working, but merely to pose the question of whether the infrastructural paradigm is necessarily the only way available. This reviewer, at least, remains to be convinced that the demand for infrastructures that federate access and analysis has been shown to be present amongst end users. But while Webb and O’Carroll rightly suggest that the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ (129) has had its day amongst those who create individual tools and services, is it not alive and well at the infrastructural level? As a minimum, we ought to ask whether the dominance of the infrastructual paradigm is not due to its appeal to large providers of content and its comparative simplicity to fund and administer, rather than its intrinsic rightness as a way of fostering research. Readers will differ on the answers to this question, but anyone concerned with the future of digital humanities research will find much to ponder in this timely and important collection of essays.